A Bible Lesson on Daniel 1

Scripture taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Copyright 2000; 2001, by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

The date as the book of Daniel opens is 605 BC. It’s before the fall of Jerusalem and the Babylonian Exile. Recall that the final destruction of the Kingdom of Judah came about in 3 stages. In 605 BC, after the battle of Carchemish where the Babylonians defeated the Egyptians, Nebuchadnezzar made a pass through Palestine and subjugated Jehoiakim, who was a vassal of Pharaoh. Judah became a vassal of Babylon and a first small wave of captives was taken to Babylon. She rebelled and Nebuchadnezzer returned in 597 BC, this time carrying off Jehoiachin and a much larger contingent of Jews. Finally, he was forced to return and raze Jerusalem and carry off all its remaining residents in 586 BC. This book opens at he time of the first visit of the leading world power to Palestine and the first deportation.

Daniel 1:1 In the third year of the reign of Jehoiakim king of Judah, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came to Jerusalem and besieged it.

2 And the Lord gave Jehoiakim king of Judah into his hand, with some of the vessels of the house of God. And he brought them to the land of Shinar, to the house of his god, and placed the vessels in the treasury of his god.

The victory of the pagan Nebuchadnezzar over God’s people Judah, was God’s doing, and came to pass just as the prophet Jeremiah had promised. The people of Judah were largely apostate and paying no attention to the prophets God had sent to warn them. And now the time of judgment has come, in the form of foreign military might.

Think about the mindset of the people of Judah at this time. To this point, they had considered Jerusalem invincible because of the presence of God’s temple. But here are articles from the temple being carried off by a pagan to be placed in his pagan temple. Sadly, not even this shock is enough to cause the nation and her leaders to repent.

3 Then the king commanded Ashpenaz, his chief eunuch, to bring some of the people of Israel, both of the royal family and of the nobility,

Nebuchadnezzar was a great military guy, and he was also a wise and often semi-benevolent despot. He apparently had a Babylon Diplomatic University operating, and for many reasons saw it advantageous to enroll the best and brightest from the nations he conquered. The intention was almost certainly to make Babylonians out of the enrollees, loyal subjects to serve in his government, and yet to provide him insight into the peoples he ruled. They could give his new subjects reasons not to cause him trouble by rebelling. This was a full ride scholarship and training for a good job with the #1 world power, the kind of opportunity that in most countries he conquered likely produced lots of applicants.

4 youths without blemish, of good appearance and skillful in all wisdom, endowed with knowledge, understanding learning, and competent to stand in the king’s palace, and to teach them the literature and language of the Chaldeans.

Youths/young men were taken. The best guess here is that we’re talking about kids 14 or 15 years old. These were kids from leading families who were healthy and good looking, who had already proved themselves capable as students and had applied themselves so that they already knew some things. These were kids that could clearly be counted on to develop into capable civil servants. First, however, they had to learn the Babylonian system. We need to be realistic here. The Babylonians knew a fair amount of good solid real stuff: mathematics, architecture, agriculture, law, astronomy, meteorology, linguistics and so on. But their “literature” also included much pagan mumbo-jumbo, incantations, astrology, and the like. All of this, these young Jews were to learn. Exactly how many were to be taken, we’re not told, but it seems like “some” probably means more than the 4 that we see standing true in the rest of this chapter. If there were indeed others, we’re not told what became of them. But again it seems likely that they didn’t come through this indoctrination with their faith intact.

5 The king assigned them a daily portion of the food that the king ate, and of the wine that he drank. They were to be educated for three years, and at the end of that time they were to stand before the king.

This was a “full ride” proposition. In fact, their food came straight from Nebuchanezzar’s kitchens. The training was supposed to last for 3 years, and then there was a guaranteed civil service post. Whatever else we hear here, it should be clear that this was calculated to win these kids’ allegiance and hearts. Now enter our young heroes.

6 Among these were Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah of the tribe of Judah.

Daniel is God’s prince or God is my judge. Hananiah is mercy of Yahweh. Mishael is Who is what God is? Azariah is Whom Yahweh helps.

7 And the chief of the eunuchs gave them names: Daniel he called Belteshazzar, Hananiah he called Shadrach, Mishael he called Meshach, and Azariah he called Abednego.

The Dean of Students at Babylon Diplomatic University gives these kids proper Babylonians names. The best guesses at the meanings of these names seem to be Belteshazzar/Bel’s prince, Shadrach/command of Aku, Meshach/who is like Aku?, Abednego/servant of Nebo. These names include the names of Babylonian “gods.” The purpose was pretty clearly to say to these kids “you’re Babylonians now.” Boice said, “Nebuchanezzar changed the men’s names, but he could not change their hearts. They remained faithful to the true God of Israel …”

It is worth noting that these young men didn’t buck the system on this point. Jeremiah had been preaching that Babylon was going to be God’s punishment on Judah and that Judah wasn’t to resist. And for example, in Jeremiah 29 he writes to the second wave of captives

Jeremiah 29:5 Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce.

6 Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease.

7 But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.

This is part of God-ordained submission to the conquering power in a matter that was not really a matter of faith. If the Babylonians wanted to call them by Babylonian names (even ones that included references to their pagan deities) this was not a point worth contending.

Daniel 1:8 But Daniel resolved that he would not defile himself with the king’s food, or with the wine that he drank. Therefore he asked the chief of the eunuchs to allow him not to defile himself.

But now here is a different matter. Daniel “resolved.” He firmly decided ahead of time how it was going to go. There is going to be no compromise here at all. If it costs him his scholarship, or even his life, there’s no taking part in this. This is the most important verse of Chapter 1. Daniel leaves nothing up to the whims or pressures of the moment. He resolves beforehand.

He resolves not to “defile himself.” In exactly what way? The standard answers given to this question are 1) the food had probably been offered to pagan deities, 2) it probably wasn’t kosher (the pagans didn’t distinguish between clean and unclean animals, and animals weren’t slaughtered in accord with the Old Testament requirements). These may be the point, but I’m not so sure. Really, there wasn’t going be ANY food in Babylon that was ritually clean by Jewish standards.

Ezekiel 4:13 And the LORD said, “Thus shall the people of Israel eat their bread unclean, among the nations where I will drive them.”

Another possibility that seems more plausible is this: it may be that to eat from the king’s table amounted to a kind of loyalty oath, an unreserved commitment of oneself to a covenant relationship with the king. (See Daniel 11:26, where it seems that it is especially treasonous that people who eat from a king’s table would turn on him.) It may be that Daniel rejects this symbol of dependence on/loyalty to the king, because he sees it as potentially in conflict with his primary loyalty to God. It may be that he simply can’t promise to bind himself to this pagan in all things he might decide to do. He’s no rebel and not going to make a federal case out of the little stuff. But when it comes to making a commitment of absolute allegiance to the earthly king, that’s not something he could do under any circumstances.

Calvin’s commentary on Daniel offers yet another slant on this “resolve.” One must eat regularly. By choosing to eat differently from the Babylonians, Daniel and friends were setting up a constant reminder for themselves that they were, in fact, Jews, part of God’s elect. not Babylonians. They were reminding themselves that they were instead, part of God’s own special people.

It is remarkable that this teenager has this kind of discernment and fortitude. Talk about “peer pressure”! But it’s this kind of resolve from the very beginning (in something that maybe others wouldn’t consider a big deal) that later allows Daniel to face the lions and takes his friends into and through the fiery furnace. We all want to be faithful in the big things. But faithfulness is learned in the small things, and Daniel was resolved in this seemingly small thing.

9 And God gave Daniel favor and compassion in the sight of the chief of the eunuchs,

Daniel resolved and God gave. Daniel is not calling the shots here, but when Daniel and friends are obedient, God moves on the heart of this pagan official. “favor” is love or loyalty based on a mutual commitment. Daniel felt he could confide in this Dean of Students.

10 and the chief of the eunuchs said to Daniel, “I fear my lord the king, who assigned your food and your drink; for why should he see that you were in worse condition than the youths who are of your own age? So you would endanger my head with the king.”

Not only was this guy worried about Daniel’s health, but if the interpretation of eating from the king’s table amounting to a loyalty oath is right, a refusal to eat might be taken as treasonous … something that surely would cause one to lose one’s head. It seems he has sympathy for this kid from Judah, recognizes that he’s not a trouble-maker or a rebel, but he doesn’t dare OK such a thing. It can’t be an official policy. So Daniel turns to the steward immediately in charge of his case.

11 Then Daniel said to the steward whom the chief of the eunuchs had assigned over Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah,

12 “Test your servants for ten days; let us be given vegetables to eat and water to drink.

13 Then let our appearance and the appearance of the youths who eat the king’s food be observed by you, and deal with your servants according to what you see.”

Look at how humbly and politely Daniel approaches this thing with this fellow. Daniel had resolved and was ready to go to the wall over this, but he didn’t force a confrontation. The wisdom of this kid is truly from God. Most of us aren’t this wise by 65, let alone 15. This whole story speaks to us about how we should behave as strangers and exiles as we wait for the return of Christ and our great redemption. Daniel and friends didn’t contend with the Babylonians over those things that didn’t really matter. In the things that did matter they were firmly resolved, but didn’t try to create a fight where one wasn’t necessary.

The steward agrees to the experiment.

14 So he listened to them in this matter, and tested them for ten days.

15 At the end of ten days it was seen that they were better in appearance and fatter in flesh than all the youths who ate the king’s food.

Are vegetables inherently righteous? Surely not. Is this a sermon on healthy eating? Surely not. What is relevant here is that these kids trust God in a real and deep way. He has led them to abstain from the king’s food. If God is God, then He will vindicate that obedience and trust. And that is what He does. He vindicates them for His own glory.

16 So the steward took away their food and the wine they were to drink, and gave them vegetables.

17 As for these four youths, God gave them learning and skill in all literature and wisdom, and Daniel had understanding in all visions and dreams.

Not only does God keep them healthy, but He gives them miraculous clarity of mind, wisdom and abilities. Why? Because they’re getting superior nutrition? No, because they trust Him.

18 At the end of the time, when the king had commanded that they should be brought in, the chief of the eunuchs brought them in before Nebuchadnezzar.

19 And the king spoke with them, and among all of them none was found like Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. Therefore they stood before the king.

20 And in every matter of wisdom and understanding about which the king inquired of them, he found them ten times better than all the magicians and enchanters that were in all his kingdom.

These four joined the Babylonian civil service. They graduated and got good jobs and lived peacefully and happily ever after. Right? Hardly! They did graduate at the top of their class and get good jobs. But the end of all this is not their comfort, but God’s glory and purposes. They have jealous colleagues, lions, and fiery furnaces yet to face.

21 And Daniel was there until the first year of King Cyrus.

But the fact is that Daniel outlived the empire! He was still in its service when the Persians supplanted the Babylonians. What is real and permanent is God’s providence and mercy, not the kingdoms of man.

Here is a .pdf of this lesson.

Scripture taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Copyright 2000; 2001, by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.